Illustration by Oliver Barrett

Pankaj Mishra intervjuer Orhan Pamuk for the New Republic.

PM: That question is now asked in different ways: Why has Turkey turned Islamist? There is the assumption that secularization leads to the development of progressive political forces and progressive art forms, but now Turkey seems to be going back and becoming more Muslim.

OP: I would say politically and also culturally, that this change is not that deep really. Perhaps the class that I belong to doesn’t have political power anymore, but I feel that my generation has the cultural power. And yes, maybe Turkey has an Islamist conservative government, but on the other hand, they are not culturally that powerful. Culture is represented by—I wouldn’t say the left, but definitely by the secularists. That’s why, until recently, the minister of culture in Erdoğan’s government was a secular, leftist guy, who was just fired some six months ago.

PM: But do you think the [Justice and Development] AK Party really feels its cultural powerlessness in that way?


OP: No, they feel powerful now. For quite a long time, the AK Party and all these conservatives always appropriated secular guys and—I don’t want to say used them, which is a bad word—but encouraged them: Just write whatever you want, you can even express your secular ideas in our newspaper. Because at that time, they were insecure. They didn’t know about modern culture. They all felt provincial, backward. They felt they didn’t even know how to run newspapers’ art pages; they always borrowed. But they’re not borrowing anymore.

PM: In Erdoğan’s rhetoric, there are still a lot of pointed barbs at the old secularist elite.

OP: He is doing that, but not in the realm of culture. He is doing that in other ways. About privileges, about the rules of the political game, which he’s always upset about, about the intervention of the military.

PM: So a lot of liberal secularists also voted for him because—

OP: I don’t know. I never voted for him.

PM: I have come across a lot of praise for Erdoğan’s toughness among leading politicians in Indonesia and Pakistan. They say, “We need a man like that to put the army and the crazies back in the barracks and to make the transition from decades of despotism or military rule.”

OP: Yes, he is a brave guy in the sense that he can say no to the army. On the other hand, he was cleverly negotiating with Europe—saying, “Hey, you want to take Turkey in?” And also, “Help me, so the army won’t throw me out.” He also learned that hard-core Islamic policies would scare Turkish voters. Necmettin Erbakan, the previous Islamist, was more fundamentalist, but if he followed that ideology, he would lose votes. At the beginning, Erdoğan took a more modest approach—“I’ll respect your culture, I’ll respect your opera,” or whatever. Now he trusts himself more, his party is more self-confident, and he doesn’t need Europe, because the army is marginalized. It may be that he’s feeling too arrogant.

PM: Let me take a leap here and go to Snow.

OP: Both My Name is Red and Snow were written with the projection that political Islam may one day come into power.

PM: What was the reaction to Snow here?

OP: Snow is my most popular book in the United States. But in Turkey, it was not as popular as My Name is Red, or even The Museum of Innocence, because the secular leaders didn’t want this bourgeois Orhan trying to understand these head-scarf girls.

PM: The review by Christopher Hitchens has the same expectation: Here is Orhan Pamuk trying to interpret the East for us. But why is he not interpreting it the way we want him to? Why is he soft on the Islamists?

OP: For me, the novelty is trying to identify with someone like Blue, who is much more of a hard-core fundamentalist than Erdoğan. Obviously, I’m also against his political program, and I wanted my readers to at least have a sense of a radical Islamist’s point of view.

PM: Snow seems to say to me that, if you’re going to have democratization, a certain degree of Islamization is inevitable.

OP: I wouldn’t say Islamization—I would say coming to terms with Islamic culture, not seeing all aspects of it as a negative thing, but accepting its peculiarities.

Also don’t forget that my generation was different. We were thinking, Enough of these military coups. Secularism that has to be defended by the army comes at a cost. Once in ten years, there is a military coup. Once in two years, there is martial law. Kurds are repressed, conservatives are repressed. If you want to stick to your very narrow definition of secularism, how are you going to have democracy?

PM: There is also a character in the book who makes the journey from being a leftist to being a fundamentalist.

OP: That’s someone who would probably be in Erdoğan’s party today.

PM: This is a journey a lot of people in Muslim countries have made.

OP: Especially poets. So many poets who were very harsh Marxists in their youth, who were admirers of Western civilization, switched to Islam.

PM: The pattern seems to show that secular ideologies had been exhausted. And at some point, a lot of these people made the decision to embrace—

OP: The nation, the culture, history, the idea of belonging.

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